Reviewed by Karen Langley
As I’ve explained in my Bookbuzz feature, the Red Circle Minis are three slim volumes of original writing published by Red Circle Authors. Each book is by a writer who’s either Japanese or living in Japan, but the works are being issued in English initially as an attempt to widen the audience for Japanese literature. The first three Minis make fascinating reading; each is short, sharp and punchy in a different way, and they all have very different subject matter!
Mini 1 is Stand-in Companion by Kazufumi Shiraishi (translated by Raj Mahtani). Set at some point in the future, it tells of the difficulties involved in modern relationships and how technology has made the complexities worse. Hayato and his wife Yutori live in a world where the population explosion has led to IVF being outlawed, and unless a couple conceive traditionally and naturally, they simply won’t have a family. Hayato and Yutori have failed to conceive and initially it seems that the problem is with the latter. As the narrative continues, we learn that the couple are divorced and in such cases the abandoned partner is provided with an AI stand-in version of their lost husband or wife. The ten years that the AI companion survives is considered long enough for grieving or readjustment… However, as the narrative switches focus, it appears that the partner supplied as a companion might not be the one we thought it was; and it becomes harder and harder to work out who is real and who AI; although in the end, does it really matter? This is a very thought-provoking work, and very timely considering not only our advances in technology, but also our concerns with identity. Shiraishi is an author new to me but a prolific and prize-winning one, and he does have other work available in English.
The second Mini is Backlight by Kanji Hanawa (translated by Richard Nathan, one of the co-founders of Red Circle Authors), and it’s the book out of the three that will probably resonate most with Western readers. Backlight is based on a case which was widely reported in the news, that of a seven year old boy abandoned by the side of the road by his parents as a punishment. In the book, a group of psychologists are called in to help the searchers understand the boy’s motivation in going off into the wild instead of waiting by the road to be rescued. As they days go on, the psychologists continue to talk (their dialogue is set out almost like a play script) while the searchers continue to search; and watching the former coldly discuss motivations while a child’s life is in danger is quite chilling. However, an epilogue reveals quite how much one particular psychologist has been affected by events and how their own emotions relate to the case… Hanawa has had an illustrious career and written hundreds of short stories, of which form he is considered a master. This one is certainly very memorable.
The third of the first set of Minis is Tokyo Performance by Roger Pulvers, an author who writes in both English and Japanese. It’s an intriguing piece of storytelling, firmly set in the pre-Internet days of the 1970s. The narrative tells the story of Nori, a TV celebrity chef who charms his audience of middle-aged women on his weekly television show with double entendres and suggestive banter whilst cooking. Narrated by his erstwhile producer, Kazuko Sato, Tokyo… relives one of Nori’s live TV shows where things do not go quite as planned. Much of the story is made up of Nori’s on-screen dialogue, and it soon becomes clear that all is not well with him; gradually, his real-life issues (divorce, estrangement from his children) are revealed, and this week’s show develops into a real train wreck. It’s a clever story, capturing a pre-technological time as well as the falsity of media life (still very relevant today); and despite the inevitability of Nori’s collapse, there were times when I wanted to look away! As well as being an author, Pulvers is also a filmmaker, and worked with David Bowie on Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
Each of the three Red Circle Minis is a fascinating, individual and thought-provoking read, as well as being an excellent introduction to the authors featured. If you want to broaden your knowledge of Japanese contemporary writing this is a great place to start; or if you just want some good, short and stimulating works to read, the Red Circle Minis are ideal!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is fairly obsessed with cherry blossom.
Kazufumi Shiraishi, Stand-in Companion (Red Circle Authors, 2018). 978-1912864003, 43pp, paperback.
Kanji Hanawa, Backlight (Red Circle Authors, 2018). 978-1912864041, 50pp, paperback.
Roger Pulvers, Tokyo Performance (Red Circle Authors, 2018). 978-1912864027, 32pp, paperback.